Murder Most Foul

Unanswered questions: Cecelia Navarro (opposite, left) with sisters Remedios and Asuncion in 1932. (Source: Filipinas Magazine, October 1997)

Unanswered questions: Cecelia Navarro (opposite, left) with sisters Remedios and Asuncion in 1932. (Source: Filipinas Magazine, October 1997)

In 1933, all eyes were focused on Martinez, California following sensational stories of “a secret Filipino cult” that buried alive 28-year old Cecelia Navarro, a farmer’s wife.

The lurid tale and the trial of alleged cult members were followed eagerly throughout the United States, Hawaii and the Philippines. Had Navarro been sacrificed to appease some primitive Filipino deity? Would one of the defendants, who was pregnant, be allowed to give birth only to be executed a few days later?

Cecelia Villano Navarro had no inkling of the dark fate that awaited her when she settled in Stockton with her mother and siblings in 1918. Stockton was the last in a long line of farming towns her family lived in ever since they moved to Hawaii from Carcar, Cebu in 1914 to work in the plantations. Cecelia married Ignacio Navarro, an Ilocano farm worker, in 1924 and had four children. Soon thereafter, Ignacio fell ill with tuberculosis, a common disease in the impoverished Filipino communities of the 1930s. Navarro, knowing that her husband was dying, sent her children to her grandparents in the Philippines. She rented a room in a boardinghouse near the Stockton county hospital where her husband was confined, so she could visit him daily. In between, she took odd jobs.

Cecilia, as a young girl, with sister Asuncion (Source: Filipinas Magazine, October 1997)

Cecilia, as a young girl, with sister Asuncion (Source: Filipinas Magazine, October 1997)

It was in the boardinghouse that her nightmare began on May 8, 1932. That night, Navarro heard yelling and the sound of someone being beaten. She called the authorities, who arrested four Filipino men, including one Catalino Rondez. All were members of the Caballeros de DimasAlang Inc. (CDA). It turned out that Rondez’s wife, a white woman from Puyallup, Washington, had run away from her abusive husband. Rondez believed that Pepito Trofelo and A. Perales from Cortez, California, knew where she was hiding. When the two denied knowing her whereabouts, Rondez and his friends assaulted them and took Trofelo back to the Stockton boardinghouse to continue their interrogation.

Based on Navarro’s eyewitness testimony, Rondez and his companions were convicted of assault and kidnapping by a Merced County jury and were sentenced to prison time in both Merced County jail and San Quintin Prison. Soon after the men began serving their time in the county jail in July 1932, Navarro was accused of adultery by members of Maria Clara Lodge No. 15, an affiliate of the CDA. When confronted by her accusers, she denied having an affair with a man from Atwater, California. The women, led by Alberta Asis, ordered her to do penance by kneeling on beans.

Today it seems ludicrous that Navarro would accept the penance imposed by the Lodge. But during the Depression – when migrant workers often underbid each other just to get work – the lodges were seen as the unifying element in the Filipino community and thus wielded much power over the Filipinos living in the farming communities. According to Fred Cordova in his book Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans, “These organizations had an estimated strength of 10,000 members in the early 1930s scattered in over 300 lodges throughout the United States. These organizations took the place of the family relationships that the predominant bachelor society had left behind in the Philippines.” Thus, Navarro had no choice but to submit to the punishment despite her denial of adultery.

Cecilia married Ignacio Navarro in 1924 (Source: Filipinas Magazine, October 1997)

Cecilia married Ignacio Navarro in 1924 (Source: Filipinas Magazine, October 1997)

Rondez and his companions were transferred to San Quintin Prison on Sept. 15, 1932. Later that month, Navarro went to visit a woman friend in Winton, California. There, she was kidnapped by five men who took her to a home in Stockton. She was again confronted by women of the Maria Clara Lodge and accused of adultery. This time they beat her and held her prisoner for several weeks. She escaped and sought refuge with two of her sisters who were living in Ventura, California. Asuncion and Meding thought that their older sister’s depression was caused by her concern for her husband. They gave the little savings they had so she could take her husband to the Philippines to die.

Navarro went to Merced on Nov. 19, 1932 to get her husband. She brought him to a Stockton boardinghouse to prepare for their trip. She was spotted by a member of the Lodge and was again kidnapped. Dressed in what looked like a kimono, Navarro was brought to Redmen’s Hall in Stockton. Her hands were tied, and she was blindfolded. She was again accused of adultery. A man pushed her down and kicked her. The women then took over. Asis reportedly beat her on the head with a gavel; Marie Galvez and Theresa Quintanilla allegedly pummeled her repeatedly.

I believe the torture took a turn for the worse that night. Perhaps Navarro cried out that she would report the incident to the police. Or maybe she was knocked unconscious. Whatever the case, someone panicked. She had to be gotten rid of.

Leon Quintanilla, CDA leader of Regidor Lodge No. 5 in Stockton, allegedly suggested that they to go Jersey Island to dispose of Navarro. It was a 30-mile drive from Stockton. In the early hours of November 20, two old cars drove toward the Quintanilla labor camp on Jersey Island. In one car were the Quintanillas, Galvez and Eugenia Sales; in the other were Pastore and Toribia Santillan, Navarro and Asis. It was the last time anyone saw Navarro alive.

Happier Days: Cecelia Navarro's family and friends on July 5, 1925 (Source: Filipinas Magazine, October 1997)

Happier Days: Cecelia Navarro's family and friends on July 5, 1925 (Source: Filipinas Magazine, October 1997)

On April 1, 1933, Pablo Bustamante walked into the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office to report a crime. Deputy Sheriff Louis Tottman listed to Bustamante’s incredible story of a secret trial in which a woman was sentence to be buried alive. Tottman thought it was an April Fool’s trick, but Bustamante was adamant. Tottman immediately called R. R. Veale, sheriff of Contra Costa County, and told him the story.

The authorities drove to the Quintanilla camp on Jersey Island in the middle of the night. Armed deputies surrounded the bunkhouses and assembled the Filipinos in one of the buildings. Bustamante identified Vicente Kang and Eustaquio Codog as two of the men who participated in Navarro’s burial.

Under intense questioning, Codog broke down and told them what had happened the night the women came to the camp. He and Kang had been sleeping in the bunkhouse when Leon Quintanilla roused them out of bed and ordered them to bring shovels. Quintanilla allegedly led them to a place on the levee behind the camp and ordered them to dig a deep hold. Codog said he heard sobbing and please for mercy coming from one of the cars.

Once the hold was dug, the woman reportedly dragged a screaming Navarro from the car and pushed her down next to the hole, with Marie Galvez ordering that Navarro be pushed into the pit. Navarro struggled against her bonds and was hear screaming as the women kicked dirt into the grave and the men filled in the hole. Then there was silence.

In the dead of night, Codog led the officers along the dark and narrow levee. They dug at a designated spot without the result. “The burned wood over the spot to hide the place,” Codog told the officers in broken English. He suggested another place. The deputies dug again. At four feet a woman’s hand was revealed, rings still on the fingers.

The body was disinterred and taken to Brentwood. An examination revealed that the woman hadn’t drowned, as was supposed because she was partially buried in water, and her skull wasn’t fractured.

A statewide dragnet was immediately set in motion. Seven suspects were arrested: Leon and Theresa Quintanilla, Alberta Asis, Marie Galvez, Vicente Kang, Ramon Costillo and Eustaquio Codog. Search warrants were issued for the CDA Grand Lodge headquarters on Kearny Street in San Francisco, as well as the lodge headquarters on Roberts Island.

The senior officials of the CDA held an emergency meeting in Stockton on April 4, 1933. Fabros, who was present at the meeting, says that the Lodge decided to provide the best defense for the accused. It was the first time many of the officilas had heard of the murder. Because Bustamante, a senior official of the Lodge, had betrayed members of the CDA, they would dissociate themselves from him.

Attorneys Wilbur Pierce and Thomas M. Carbon accepted the daunting challenge of defending the accused. Money was no object. The CDA would request ‘donations” from its lodges and members to pay the legal fees. But CDA had an even greater challenge ahead.

The mainstream newspapers had a field day depicting the “primitive and barbaric rites” used by the “secret cult” to exert control over its members. The San Francisco Chronicle (April 2, 1933) wrote of weird midnight rituals conducted by the women around a voodoo fire. The Oakland Tribune (April 3, 1933) headlined the story as a “living sacrifice” and described the ritual as a punishment in order to save the entire tribe from disaster.

More than 1,000 Filipinos gathered in Stockton to protest the stigmatization of all Filipinos because of the actions of “a paltry seven.” They also condemned “false and misleading statements” published in Stockton, San Francisco and other daily papers that implied the murder exemplified “the practices and customs of the Filipino race.”

The United Filipinos of America, Inc. in San Francisco expressed the hope that “the inherent sense of justice and square deal of the American people will prevail in the matter, so that the public indignation against this or other crimes that might be committed by Filipinos in the future will be laid against the person or persons directly responsible, without casting undue reflection upon the good name of the entire Filipino people.”

Delfin F. Cruz, publisher of the Philippines Mail, said that in a series of meetings in April, the CDA began to lay the groundwork for the defense of the “paltry seven.” Through news leaks and newspaper interviews, another version of the story spread – that Bustamante had killed Navarro for rejecting his advances, a charge that Navarro’s sister Asuncion vigorously denied: “First they accuse her of adultery, and now they say she was killed because she rejected a suitor.”

People around Jersey Island began reporting a ghostly apparition wandering the area where the body had been buried. The three women prisoners claimed that Navarro’s ghost was haunting them. Asis claimed that on the third day after the victim was buried alive, the spirit of the dead woman appeared in her home in Vallejo. When she screamed in fight, the apparition vanished. District Attorney James F. Hoey reported that Bustamante had received death threats and that he was being protected around the clock. According to one story, 12 masked men had met in Stockton and drew marbles from a bag. The would-be assassin was the one who drew the black ball.

The trial began at the Contra Costa Hall of Records in Martinez, California on July 5, 1933. Three of the jury members had served on a previous murder trial that convicted the defendant and sentenced him to death. The prosecution had a “hanging jury.”

The prosecution opened by calling Deputy Sheriff Tottman to the stand to relate the confessions the defendants made to him. Defense lawyer Carlson immediately objected that the defendants weren’t informed of their right against self-incrimination; neither did they have a lawyer present. Also, the interpreter, Mrs. Codog, the wife of Eustaquio, couldn’t be considered a reliable translator. The objection was sustained.

Next, Mrs. Codog was called to the stand to testify but refused on the grounds that a wife can’t be forced to testify against her husband. The prosecution tried to get her to testify against the other six, but Carlson successfully objected, stating that her testimony could taint the status of her husband.

The prosecution tried to lay a foundation showing that the accused were responsible for Navarro’s death. But its key witness, Filipinos who were present either at the “trial” in Stockton or the burial on Jersey Island, began to have memory lapses and difficulty with English, or, as prosecutor Hoey would state, “committed perjury.” Other state witnesses claimed that Bustamante killed Navarro.

The prosecution thus had to impeach the testimony of its own witnesses and tried to admit into the record the interviews the defendants gave to newspaper reporters. The prosecutor charged that his witnesses were being intimidated, and he accused the CDA of placing itself above the law.

Judge Thomas D, Johnston joined the denouncing the reticence of the witnesses. “It strikes me plainly that someone has suborned perjury in this case,” he declared.

Witnesses Eugenia Sales and Pastore Santellan, who themselves were never indicted, claimed their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify on grounds that it might incriminate them. Judge Johnson ordered them to pay a fine of $400 or spend 100 days in jail. They didn’t pay the fine.

On July 19, the defense began its case by calling Bustamante to the stand. The defense attorneys asked him leading questions, trying to plan the seed of doubt about his credibility.

Bustamante admitted that a quarrel with the Quintanillas over wine partly prompted him to report the burial to officers. He told of a conversation he had with CDA Grand Master S. A. Sunga and recorder C. T. Alfafara near the court house on July 1. He said that Sunga asked him why he had reported the affair to officers and that he replied, “If I remain quiet, I would die.” When Alfafara accused him of violating the Lodge’s code of silence by going to the police, Bustamante retorted that he only did so to protect himself. ‘

Prosecutor Hoey branded the line of questioning as a “smoke screen” to which Carlson roared: “You know and I know that this man on the stand is guilty of the murder!”

Judge Johnson pointed out to the defense that he had allowed them to use leading questions in examining Bustamante believing that they would present witnesses later to substantiate their line of questioning. He warned them to present those witnesses or be found guilty of improper conduct.

Bustamante testified that he lived in fear of the Lodge and its members, that he had heard Theresa Quintanilla say on March 31 on Roberts Island that they would do to him “what had been done to Mrs. Navarro.”

The defense attorneys then began assaulting Bustamante’s credibility, calling upon witnesses who claimed that he was the chief accuser of adultery against Navarro and that he had choked her to death. The defense pushed the argument that Bustamante was the slayer and that revenge led him to charge others with the murder.

On April 1, 1933, Pablo Bustamante walked into the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office to report a crime.

During closing arguments, Deputy District Attorney Francis Collins presented a remarkable resume of the evidence in the trial, confining himself to a purely factual recital of testimony. Appearing before a jury in his first major criminal proceeding, the young attorney won plaudits for the concise and complete manner in which he treated the testimony that was given by several witnesses.

Hoey depicted Bustamante as a man willing to stake his life against threats of revenge so that justice could be done. Hoey also hurled the charge that one of the persons at the “trial” who was judging Navarro for infidelity was herself living in open adultery in Contra Costa County. He closed by telling the jury, “I urge that your verdict should be first degree murder, but I do not urge whether it should be the death penalty or life imprisonment. That is for you to decide.”

But defense counsel Carlson stressed that the prosecution had failed to establish its case beyond a reasonable doubt. “You are faced with the most important decision of your entire life,” he told the jury. “You have the lives of seven persons in your hands, You can send them to the gallows or you send them back to their families.”

Defnse attorney Pierce asked the jury: “Can anyone of you say now, beyond all reasonable doubt, just where Mrs. Navarro was killed? It is up to the district attorney to prove that she was killed by these defendants in this county. The court will instruct you that if it is not proven she was killed in this country, you must find the defendants innocent.”

On July 28, the jury retired. On the evening of July 29, the jury called for the bailiff to announce that a verdict had been reached: “Not guilty.” All of the defendants were acquitted of the murder of Cecelia Navarro.

Bustamante immediately left California for Hawaii and eventually returned to the Philippines in November 1933.

For the Filipino community in California, the 1933 trial was a turning point in mainstream America’s perception of Filipinos. From April through July, terms such as “secret cult” and “primitive fertility rites” were used to describe the story. By the time the jury announced its verdict many papers were calling the secret cult a fraternal organization and the incident a “typical murder case.” In the community, however, the CDA gained great prestige for its staunch defense of the seven accused of Navarro’s murder.

But today at a rest home in Southern California, residents tell of an elderly woman who stares into the past, as if looking for someone. Once is a while, they say, they hear her cry out in anguish and anger: “They killed my sister!”

First published as "Jersey Island Murder Case" By Alex S. Fabros, Jr. and Katherine S. Fabros, Filipinas Magazine, October 1997.

Alex S. Fabros, Jr.

Alex S. Fabros, Jr.

Alex S. Fabros, Jr. is a retired Philippine American Military History professor.

More articles from Alex Fabros, Jr.